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The Transformative Power of Philanthropy

Next week, Tuesday, May 14, the Rockefeller Foundation will mark our Centennial. In the lead up to the celebration, I’ve been contributing a series of posts about what we’ve learned about strategic philanthropy over the last 100 years.

Last week, in my third entry, I wrote about philanthropy’s ability to “back brains” and invest in the power of human ingenuity. Amazing things happen when you bet on people — including entire transformations. And that is, of course, our fourth super power — the ability to bring about transformations that not only disrupt but at times uproot entire systems and save millions of lives.

The most obvious example from Rockefeller Foundation history is our work in scientific agriculture that started in Mexico, which would develop the seeds that launched the Green Revolution, and feed more than 1 billion people.

But one of our least known accomplishments may well be among our greatest: the complete reform of medical education in the United States. Over 20 years, the Rockefeller Foundation would invest almost $100 million to lay the groundwork for many of the medical advancements that would define the 20th century, from the development of a yellow fever vaccine to the clinical use of penicillin. And we would use these efforts as a model for advancing scientific medical education in other parts of the world, including China.

Amazing things happen when you bet on people—including entire transformations.

We see these transformations in modern day philanthropy — from the Gates Foundation’s work to rid the world of polio, which could save hundreds of millions of lives, to the work of the Omidyar Network, the Rockefeller Foundation and many others involved in impact investing and innovative finance to unlock trillions of dollars in private capital to improve the lives of countless people worldwide.

But with this ability comes great responsibility, in all of our work, to grapple with the big moral questions of our day.

Here’s one example of how we’ve been called upon in the past. By 1933, many scholars and artists, most of them Jewish, were losing their positions in Germany under Hitler.

Through its Special Research Aid Fund for Deposed Scholars, the Rockefeller Foundation placed many of these individuals in universities in the United States, Canada, England, France and the Netherlands.

By 1940, the program had placed 214 deposed scholars, but the war continued to escalate. A program staff memo dated June 3, 1940, titled “If Hitler Wins” laid plain the implications, and noted that in the case of a Nazi victory, concentration camps and executions may well be the fate of “persons with capacity for independent leadership.

In light of these realities, the program changed course and its name to the Emergency Program for European Scholars. It arranged for nearly 100 additional scholars and their families to come to the United States and take up positions at U.S. institutions.

While the stated mission of the program was to save science and scholarship from fascism, it is clear from their diaries that the program officers understood, and were wrenched by, the life and death implications of the decisions they were making. Many added their own money and diverted foundation funds to do more.

Today, our threats manifest in different ways – but strategic philanthropy must remain acutely aware of their consequences and our potential role in mitigating them, from the death tolls caused by the rapid, global spread of infectious diseases, to the impacts of income inequality on life expectancy, to slavery and human trafficking, to the fierce and deadly storms that hit some of our most populous cities.

Strategic philanthropy can continue to transform by serving as the risk capital that oils the wheels of progress.

Strategic philanthropy can continue to transform by serving as the risk capital that oils the wheels of progress, speaking truth to power, listening and valuing the input and ideas of our grantees and those populations we serve, and by and striving to build their individual capacity to create their own transformation.

With these ideas in mind, the Rockefeller Foundation will be announcing our next big idea for urban transformation next Tuesday to kick off our second century.

But before we look to the future, let us thank those of you who have been such an integral and valued part of our past. It’s been a truly spectacular 100 years…we look forward to the next.

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